State of the Franchise: Chicago Cubs

Last Season: 75-87 (5th in NL Central, 16 games behind Cincinnati Reds)

Looking at the win-loss record for the Cubs last year would be doing this team an injustice. Manager Lou Piniella retired during the season after three-plus years in Chicago and 23 years coaching in total. Replacing him was long-time Minor League manager Mike Quade, who guided a beleaguered bunch to a strong 24-13 finish to wrap up the season. After former Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg trumpeted for the job in the off-season, the new Cubs ownership group and general manager Jim Hendry elected to stay with Quade based on the team’s performance at the end of the 2010 season.

In the off-season, the Cubs looked to upgrade in several positions. The team traded the likes of first baseman Derrek Lee and starting pitcher Ted Lily during the season, and looked to upgrade at both those positions before Opening Day 2011. The Cubs also non-tendered second baseman Ryan Theriot, who eventually latched on with the St. Louis Cardinals and traded another starting pitcher, Tom Gorzelanny, to clear some salary space.

To shore up the team’s need for a first baseman, the Cubs went out and gave former Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena a one-year, $10 million contract. Pena enjoyed his most successful tenure in Tampa after bouncing around between four other organizations. Pena had a career year in 2007, when he broke out to a tune of .282 with 46 home runs and 121 runs batted in on his way to a Silver Slugger award. In recent years, however, the average has been on a decline from .247 to .227 to a lowly .198 last year. However, the power has always been there, connecting for 39 home runs in 2009 on his way to his only All-Star selection, and had 28 last year. While the power will be nice, the Cubs desperately wanted Pena for his glove and range. While Derrek Lee was a former Gold Glove winner himself, he lost mobility as he aged. Pena, however, has come into his own recently, and won the award in 2009.

Pena’s inclusion at first base will take pressure off their young phenom shortstop Starlin Castro to be perfect with his throws. Castro performed well offensively, leading the team with his .300 average and connecting for 31 doubles to go with his five home runs. The Cubs will look for the soon-to-be 21 year old to increase his stolen base numbers from ten in his rookie campaign. However, while Castro can track down any and every ground ball up the middle of the diamond, his throwing was the culprit mainly for why he recorded 27 errors at short in only 123 games. The clubs thinking is the defense of Pena will help limit those throwing errors and increase the overall infield defense.

While Pena is the only addition the Cubs made to their everyday line-up, the team will look for both bounce-back seasons from some and replicas of 2010 from others. The key to the Cubs offense, as it has been since he’s been with the team, is third baseman Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez, a two-time All-Star for the Cubs, had an injury shortened season in 2009, then battled injuries and long-lastings slumps in 2010. While his power numbers were still there (his 25 homers, 83 runs batted in and .452 slugging percentage led the Cubs), his average fell to .241 and couldn’t get his on-base percentage over .300 (.294). If the Cubs want to find pop in their line-up, Ramirez will have to regain his 2008 form, when he finished 10th in the National League MVP voting with a line of .289, 27 home runs and 111 runs batted in and posted a OPS of .898.

The Cubs will also rely on center fielder Marlon Byrd to come relatively close to his 2010 performance of .293, 12 home runs and 66 runs batted in. Also, anything that Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome would be an added benefit at this point in time. Blake DeWitt, acquired in the Ted Lily trade, will also likely assume starting second base duties for the Cubs, and if he can hold his own, then the Cubs should have a sustainable line-up.

Pitching was an area the Cubs felt they had the team’s strengths with. They’ve recently extended their All-Star closer Carlos Marmol three years, and feel that former ace Carlos Zambrano has controlled his insanity to a point that he and Ryan Dempster will make one of the strongest 1-2 punches in the National League Central behind the Milwaukee Brewers’ Yvonni Gallardo and Zack Greinke.

The big part the Cubs acquired is another former Ray, this time starting pitcher Matt Garza. For the Rays last year, Garza posted a 15-10 record with a 3.91 ERA in 204 2/3 innings, all while competing against the line-ups of the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays on a daily basis. Playing in a league without the DH and where the pitcher’s spot comes around the line-up at least three times a game, it is natural to expect the numbers for Garza to improve.

Much like their cross-town counterparts, the White Sox, the Cubs will have stiff competition from the defending division champion Reds and their league-MVP first baseman Joey Votto. Not to mention, the new look Brewers, who revamped their rotation to challenge the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants for the best in the league. Oh, and last time I checked, Albert Pujols still called St. Louis home. It’ll be harder for the Cubs to overcome the obstacles in front of them then it will the White Sox.

But, remember, this team is so much better than the team of misfits that finished last year 24-13 under Mike Quade. Imagine what Quade can make of this talented group for a whole 162-game schedule..

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About Home Field Advantage
We are two senior Sports Communication majors at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. We have launched this blog as part of our senior year capping project, with the goal of creating a comparative analysis and multimedia approach to the differing sports cultures in America.

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